There is an unsigned poem by the Polish Romantic Adam Mickiewicz which is based on an ancient legend. Once upon a time the Devil appeared to a dying Lithuanian prince and offered not only to return him to health but to restore his youth. All he had to do was to find a faithful friend or servant who would hack his body to pieces and anoint it with magic potion while intoning the appropriate incantation. However, should there be any deception or even carelessness in the execution of these instructions, the patient would be condemned to eternal damnation. So neither a clever rogue nor an honest idiot would do. The poem was never finished: the author never could decide whether there was such a thing as a faithful friend.
The story of the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev has finally provided an answer: there is such a thing as a faithful servant. Putin found someone to whom he could hand over power, who neither lost it nor pocketed it, and returned it promptly when asked.
‘He never said a foolish thing, Nor ever did a wise one.’
Putin could have had one, very slight, consolation: Boris Yeltsin had the same problem in 1999. Russia’s first president realised that neither the law nor his own physical condition would allow him to extend his rule.
Following Russia's victory in the war with Georgia Dmitry Medvdev failed to increase his support from the military. He then insisted on drastic cuts to the Russian officer corps.
He needed to leave the Kremlin to someone who would not let the communist slogan ‘The Yeltsin gang - in the dock!’ be put into practice, who would not allow the courts to take their revenge on Yeltsin’s friends and relations.
After much anxious reflection during the ‘premiership fever’ of 1999, Yeltsin’s choice rested on Vladimir Putin. And the gamble paid off. The new Russian President achieved much that Yeltsin could never have managed, from the return of the Soviet national anthem to the reinstatement of the institution of political prisoners. But Yeltsin himself, along with his friends and relations, remained untouched.
In 2007 Putin himself found himself facing no easy task. He did not want to go along the Lukashenko road and extend his presidential term. The only solution was to find someone who would hold power safely in his hands for four years, without either letting it go or taking possession of it.
'The earl of Rochester famously wrote of Charles II that, ‘He never said a foolish thing, /Nor ever did a wise one.’ If we were to substitute ‘independent’ for ‘wise’, we would have a precise description of Medvedev. This was the faithful friend, or rather servant, to whom Putin entrusted his most precious possession – his power.'
Vladimir Putin found his man in Dmitry Medvedev. Back in the early 90s when they worked together in the St Petersburg Mayor’s Office, Medvedev was always being taken for Putin’s secretary. Since then he had occupied quite a few senior positions, but usually as second-in-command. He was always excellent in that role; carried out the work he was given conscientiously and, most importantly, left no personal mark anywhere on his work. The earl of Rochester famously wrote of Charles II that, ‘He never said a foolish thing, /Nor ever did a wise one.’ If we were to substitute ‘independent’ for ‘wise’, we would have a precise description of Medvedev. This was the faithful friend, or rather servant, to whom Putin entrusted his most precious possession – his power.
To continue the analogy with the legend, from his first year in office Dmitry Medvedev was no stranger to temptations. The first of these was the war with Georgia in August 2008. Putin could only envy the custodian of power: Medvedev secured a speedy victory at little human cost. He then had the opportunity to shower the army with medals, raise officers’ salaries and in one month gain more popularity among the military than Putin had in his entire term of office. Medvedev resisted this temptation.
His second temptation, which coincided in time with the short Georgian war, was a behind the scenes dispute with Putin. Putin, as Prime Minister, made another of his clumsy attacks on business, threatening to ‘send a doctor’ to deal with the owner of the Mechel metallurgic company. At around the same time, Medvedev banned officials from ‘making life a nightmare’ for business. Although Medvedev was referring to small businesses, the coincidental timing of the two announcements made it look like a boss reprimanding an employee.
Medvedev had a second potential ally, not in small, but in big, business. The owners of large companies, apart from those who were close personal friends of Putin, lived in a state of constant anxiety, and although they denounced Khodorkovsky in public, his fate was never far from their minds. If Medvedev had promised them a more comfortable life, he would have acquired allies with considerable financial potential.
Finally, the third temptation of 2008 was the global economic crisis. Medvedev could have adopted the role of hard man and won the love of the Russian people with populist measures. He missed this opportunity as well. When in 2009 the majority of the population of the town of Pikalevo lost their jobs and vented their anger by blocking a main road, it was not Medvedev who flew in to deal with the crisis, but Putin, who, on prime time television, forced the local factory owners to resume production. It was he who reaped political dividends from the incident, not Russia’s president.
In 2010 Medvedev had to face not just sporadic temptations but unavoidable, systemic temptation. He had acquired a certain entourage, people keen not to give up their political influence, which would inevitably happen were Putin to return to the Kremlin. So now it was not circumstances that counselled Medvedev to remain president, but concrete individuals suggesting he liberalise political life, create a new party as competition for ‘United Russia’ and, most importantly, announce his intention to stand again for the presidency in 2012. The idea of liberalisation was unlikely in itself to guarantee Medvedev any significant popularity among the voters, but if he had announced a tough war on corruption that would extend to Putin’s cronies, attitudes to him would have changed for the better. Finally, he could have made a few overtures to Russian nationalists, at any rate their moderate-civilised faction. Putin would not allow the nationalists to create their own party, nor the liberals either.
Medvedev did nothing. As before, he let slip every chance to create an image of a leader who protected his people: in 2010 it was Putin who was seen extinguishing forest fires from the co-pilot’s seat of a fire fighting plane. On the contrary, Medvedev put through a number of unpopular reforms: national standard tests were introduced in schools, the Militia was rebranded as the Police. Medvedev’s one distinguishing feature was the presidential Twitter: a toy that means something to perhaps 3% of the Russian population.
It is difficult to say when Medvedev last said ‘No’ to his tempters. But on 24th September he advised ‘United Russia’ to put itself behind Putin as presidential candidate, and not himself. Putin, as a gesture of gratitude, entrusted Medvedev with leading ‘United Russia’ into the 2011 parliamentary elections.
The embittered servant
So, the legend ended happily, with Prince Putin back on the throne and the servant who looked after his crown for four years awaiting his reward. It is hard to say how these years have taken their toll on Putin, but Medvedev will obviously end up pretty embittered.
Dmitry Medvedev may be able to boast more than 175 000 followers on his Twitter account, but he still can't compete with Vladimir Putin for power.
In the first place, he will have to hand over power. And if it was relatively easy for the tired, unwell Yeltsin to do this (and besides, he spent a mere three months saying farewell to the Kremlin), for Medvedev it will be a severe psychological ordeal. He will have to continue as president for almost six months, all the time aware of the fact that for most of his entourage Putin is already the real President.
In the second place, Medvedev will have to lead to power a party for which he has no liking. He has more than once made uncomplimentary remarks about ‘United Russia’. Now he will have spend two months lying through his teeth, declaring that it is the best party in Russia and that everyone must vote for it. To be honest, Medvedev has already done some lying: on 24th September he told the party’s congress that ‘United Russia’ had proposed him as their presidential candidate, forgetting to mention that there were four parties.
At the same time Medvedev is intelligent enough to realise that, however hard he tries, with his name at the head of its electoral list, ‘United Russia’ will win fewer votes than if Putin’s name appeared there. The servant was put in a clear lose-lose situation.
In the third place, once Putin is reinstalled in the Kremlin, Medvedev will become Prime Minister, and one of his tasks will be to neutralise the negative consequences of his own actions as President. Election promises and financial outgoings, for example. As President, he did not criticise Premier Putin, but he himself will not be immune from criticism.
'A good servant who has been treated badly is liable to turn bad himself. And who knows, perhaps in a couple of years citizens who believed in liberal President Medvedev may be saying. ‘Thank goodness Putin is president, and not him.’
It is this bitterness and resentment that may explain Medvedev’s retribution against Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin, who was summarily dismissed for refusing to serve in the next government. Having turned down any chance of the presidency in 2012, Medvedev tried to show, aggressively and in short order, that for the time being he was still the holder of that post. He was like a naughty boy walloped by his father who immediately goes out and kicks the cat.
This episode may well turn out to be the first step in Medvedev’s political evolution. A good servant who has been treated badly is liable to turn bad himself. And who knows, perhaps in a couple of years citizens who believed in liberal President Medvedev may be saying. ‘Thank goodness Putin is president, and not him.’